When And How To Draw A Line In The Sand? (Updated)

line in the sandUPDATE 7/5/13 Below.

Original Post 7/1/13

PCA Pastor Robert Dekker, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church wanted to hold worship services this summer on the beach near Lewes, Delaware. He applied for a permit from the city to use public space. The city manager replied by writing that the request could not be granted because “I cannot mix Church and State.” In response, the congregation is planning to hold a service, as you can read, on July 4 in defiance (HT: Dave Urbanski) of the denial of the permit. There hasn’t been much news coverage of this episode outside of The Blaze so it’s difficult to know if there are other aspects to this story but on its face the city manager’s reply seems to be a classic example of the sort of ignorant, petty, bureaucratic,  tyranny that seems to be enveloping the USA. Examples:

  • A boy arrested for wearing NRA t-shirt to school.
  • A child suspended for eating a pop tart incorrectly.
  • A college student is arrested by six armed police officers after buying bottled water and cookie dough.
  • The USDA demands a disaster plan so a magician may be permitted to use rabbits in his show—do restaurants that prepare rabbit for dinner have the same requirement?
  • A fellow faces 13 years in jail for writing on the sidewalk in chalk.
  • A young man jailed for months for saying stupid things on Facebook.

I don’t think I’m being paranoid. The Germans agree with me and they know a little bit about how tyranny can appear rather suddenly.

Thus, we can and should sympathize with pastor Dekker’s plight. It is perfectly legal for churches, which are composed of tax payers, to hold worship services in public spaces. These sorts of cases have been litigated repeatedly and the courts have consistently ruled that it is not a confusion of church and state for churches to use public spaces that are available to other groups. Thus, it is disturbing and frustrating to think that  small-minded, misinformed bureaucrats, who on the basis of their confusion and ignorance, have the authority to deny to citizens the exercise of their liberties.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of other things to consider. First, we might question the wisdom of holding Sabbath say services on the beach. The news story does not make clear when the services were to be held but it seems, from the story, that the plan was to hold Sunday services on the beach. Having attended a congregation that meets in a building on the beach for 10 years, I understand the attraction but as a matter of wisdom we always resisted the temptation to adjourn to the beach for practical reasons. It’s noisy (waves make a lot of noise). It’s a huge distraction. One seagull flying by could reduce the whole service to chaos.

Nevertheless, perhaps there’s a way to ameliorate all of the potential problems.
There is a second, more important problem with the proposed service to held in defiance of the thoughtless denial by the bureaucrat: it is premature. To be sure, this is America and we are rebels. Without rebellion there would be no United States of America and churches played a significant role in the American revolution. Still, it seems as if this meeting is being called a step or two too soon. Based on the limited news coverage it does not appear that New Covenant PCA has sought legal counsel and legal remedies. Perhaps the coverage has simply omitted this fact? Whatever the case in this instance, this sort of struggle is part of a larger pattern (home bible studies forbidden, land use denied to churches etc) documented on the HB for several years. So it seems wise to think ahead of time about how to respond in such cases.

However natural and traditional it is to Americans, rather than holding a public rally immediately, churches should seek to work through established channels of appeal. Besides finding legal representation, perhaps from one of the several fine legal organizations that specialize in defending religious freedom, a congregation also has representation in the city, county, and state governments. There are letters to be written, phone calls to be made, even legislation that might be proposed before protest rallies. Then there is the public press, which was intended by the American founders to report on such abuses. If these intermediate steps fail, then perhaps there is a place for such a rally. The first amendment certainly guarantees the right of Americans peaceably to assemble.

Christians live in two polities simultaneously. We have a citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). We are also citizens in civil polities in this world (Acts 22) and both exist under the sovereign Lordship of Christ. Nevertheless, there are distinctions to be made. Christians should, like the apostle Paul, exercise their liberties as citizens. We note, however, that no congregation as such is recorded in the NT as petitioning the government. That fact is one of the reasons behind the injunction of the Westminster divines in the Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4:

4. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.

We could argue about whether this is one of those “cases extraordinary” but the frustrating thing about such episodes is that they are not extraordinary but depressingly ordinary.

The members of the congregation (and other concerned citizens) however, have recourse to the sorts of remedies that I sketched above and they should pursue them peacefully, intelligently, and graciously.

There are two more remedies. Prayer and grace. One might say, “Well, Clark, you certainly haven’t been very gracious to the person who issued this decision.” Yes, I’ve been hard on the bureaucrat who made this decision and rightly so. Civil officers have much authority and they must exercise it wisely. Those who abuse their office should feel the wrath of citizens. Nevertheless, this episode is an opportunity for the church (as an entity) and her members to show the grace of Christ to the surrounding community. As I continue to talk with apparently increasingly ignorant and illiterate pagans (our educational system has collapsed but that is the stuff of another post) it is clear that many no longer have any knowledge of the most basic things. Most recently one of them said to me, “What is this nature you speak of?” I kid you not. That ignorance extends to the constitution, the law, Scripture, and the history of the West. Christians, to the degree we live intellectually in Scripture, live in a world that is completely foreign to most of those with whom we have contact, including bureaucrats. Thus, we might be the first Christians with whom bureaucrats come into contact. They may decide what all are like on the basis of their contact with us.

Finally, we should pray. I’ve been reminded in recent conversations with pagans that the Spirit is sovereign. Only the Spirit can soften hearts and grant new life (John 3). The battle we face may seem to be in and of this world but it isn’t.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil oin the heavenly places.

This episode is a good reminder to pray for sessions as they negotiate these issues and for those in the city government with whom they are now in contact. We should pray that this episode works out to the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom and that all involved put their trust in Jesus the Savior.

Since we live in both realms we need to recognize our responsibilities in both. As citizens of civil polities we should take seriously our earthly lives, under Christ’s lordship. As citizens of the heavenly city (Gal 4) we have even greater privileges and freedoms and responsibilities that no bureaucrat can deny. We have free access to the Lord of all the nations, to whom all kings will one day give account. He hears our prayers. He answers them according to his good pleasure. As our pastor reminded us last night, no one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

UPDATE 7/5/13

According to Dave Urbanski The event was well attended and peaceful. Some complained about “too much religion” and not enough patriotism.

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  1. Scott,

    This very helpful as you weave through the possible responses a church can take in situations like that above. And you rightly point out that we (individual Christians) are citizens of two kingdoms. And yet “no congregation as such is recorded in the NT as petitioning the government.”

    Indeed, the church is not a citizen of this world. And I would argue with those who say that it is… that it’s a corporate citizen because it’s organized legally under state law for tax purposes (link should go here to your post on rethinking that one). No, the church is that other kingdom we Christians belong to. A beachhead, if you would, on the shores of an enemy territory from which she is calling sinners out of a darkened kingdom into the Kingdom of Light that is here and yet still to fully come.

    So amen to that scripture verse:

    For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

  2. I’ve wondered about that phrase “cases extraordinary” – are there examples in which the church might petition the state?

  3. States do not have to abide by the Constitution’s first amendment because it only binds what laws the Congress makes. However, states do have to abide by their own constitutions. Here’s what Delaware’s Constitution has to say:
    “Section 1. Although it is the duty of all persons frequently to assemble together for the public worship of Almighty God; and piety and morality, on which the prosperity of communities depends, are hereby promoted; yet no person shall or ought to be compelled to attend any religious worship, to contribute to the erection or support of any place of worship, or to the maintenance of any ministry, against his or her own free will and consent; and no power shall or ought to be vested in or assumed by any magistrate that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship, nor a preference given by law to any religious societies, denominations, or modes of worship.”

    • States do not have to abide by the Constitution’s first amendment because it only binds what laws the Congress makes

      It’s my understanding (as one equally unschooled in theology and law) that deeply encrusted in U.S. jurisprudence is the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Bill of Rights apply to the states.

    • Bob, you’re basically right with some complications. Just as elections have consequences, wars have consequences, and one of those consequences was the Fourteenth Amendment which did fundamentally alter the relationship between the state constitutions and the federal constitution.

      It’s an indisputable fact that a number of states still had officially established tax-supported churches at the time the federal Constitution was ratified. That would not be possible today, but it was clearly the intent of the Founders to allow such things — although it is equally clear that some of the Founders (Jefferson, for example) wanted the states on their own to abolish their state establishments of religion.

      Opponents of biblical Christianity such as Jefferson worked together quite successfully with evangelical dissenters such as the Baptists and took advantage of anti-British feeling to get the Anglican/Episcopalian state churches disestablished in the South. In New England, the Episcopalians in Connecticut worked together with Baptists and opponents of biblical Christianity to get the Congregationalists disestablished. In Massachusetts, the last state to have a state establishment of religion, once the Unitarian Schism was over and it became clear that the trinitarian Congregationalists would dominate the rural majority of the state while the Unitarians would dominate the urban churches and the wealthy East Coast churches, the orthodox party took the lead in calling for disestablishment since the establishment clause was doing little more than helping Unitarians take control of church buildings when the majority of the church members were orthodox but the majority of the parish was opposed to the preaching of a Trinitarian pastor.

      The lesson from history seems to be that divide-and-conquer works. Tiny minorities of anti-Christian viewpoints were able to take advantage of divisions within the dominant Christian communities to accomplish an irreligious agenda which could never have succeeded by normal majority votes.

      I cannot speak specifically to the language cited in the Delaware state constitution, but when state constitutions retain language such as what Joel quoted, it is, in general, a relic of compromise decisions in the late 1700s or early 1800s to say something positive about Christianity while removing the “teeth” of official state support for specific Christian churches.

  4. Joel,

    States do not have to abide by the Constitution’s first amendment because it only binds what laws the Congress makes.

    That’s not the case at all. States, and any other jurisdiction (municipal, county, etc.) cannot pass laws that violate the Constitution. As the highest law in the land, all other laws, and governing authorities are (in theory at least) subordinate to the Constitution.

  5. Joel,

    That was the case when the Bill of Rights was written, but we’ve had quite a few amendments to the Constitution since then. The first amendment, along with most of the Bill of Rights, applies to the states through the incorporation doctrine found in the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment (although some would argue that the privileges and immunities clause is surer grounds for the doctrine).

    • Joel,

      The fourteenth amendment very clearly limits the powers of the states (and therefore centralizes power). “No state shall…” “…nor shall any state…” Any argument that the states would never adopt an amendment that limited their power flies in the face of the text itself. From an original public meaning perspective (I find original intent of limited use in understanding the scope of a law–people vote for a law for all sorts of reasons), I think incorporation is perhaps better founded on the privileges or immunities clause. The author seems confused on this point as he takes aim at what he sees as an overly broad view of P or I, but P or I has been largely inoperative since Slaughter-House. However, I don’t believe the idea that P or I only includes certain unenumerated rights and not rights mentioned in the Bill of Rights at all convincing. Regardless of how we may feel, incorporation under substantive due process has been well established by nearly a century of precedent. I believe precedent needs to be given due weight if we are to take our common law tradition seriously.

  6. Nate, it’s always seemed to me there’s a tendency to read the exceptional clause so loosely as to drive all manner of trucks through. “Cases extraordinary” gets read as “whatever some deem politically important.” The upshot is ecclesiastical statements on war, reproductive legislation, who gets to fly fighter jets, etc.

    But it seems prudent to instead read the clause in terms of when the church’s conscience is being encroached.

  7. While we are commanded to live peacefully with our fellow man, so far as we are able, sometimes I think ignoring a petty bureaucrat that is clearly in the wrong as demonstrated by legal precedent is just the American thing to do. If a group of people who all just happen to belong to the same church happen to end up on the same stretch of public beach at the same time and do things that are lawful to do in public, so what? (Or it’s possible I’m just in a contrary mood…)

  8. Mark B.,

    I think I agree. When lesser authorities act unlawfully, it seems that it is very hard to make a case that they ought to be obeyed.

  9. Joel, the way John Fea and David van Drunen read Calvin, not really:

    If we keep firmly in mind that even the worst kings are appointed by this same decree which establishes the authority of kings, then we will never permit ourselves the seditious idea that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, or that we need not obey a king who does not conduct himself towards us like a king.” Calvin added: “we must honour the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him,” and “if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid.” He taught that Christians must “venerate” even those rulers who were “unworthy” of veneration. As political scientist Gregg Frazer has argued, “One cannot legitimately employ Calvin to justify rebellion, which is why the patriotic preachers argued in terms of ‘Mr. Locke’s doctrine’ rather than Calvin’s.” In the end, today’s Christians who are interested in understanding the relationship between Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 and the American Revolution must come to grips with the fact that many patriotic clergy may have been more influenced in their political positions by John Locke than the Bible.

    John Fea, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” 118-19

    Calvin’s convictions on this subject [civil disobedience] were, on the whole, strikingly conservative. In an extended series of discussions toward the close of the Institutes, he hailed the honor and reverence due to magistrates as a consequence of their appointment by God [ICR 4.20.22-29]. Calvin exhorts Christians that they must “with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defense, or in executing any other orders.” [ICR 4.20.23]. He goes on to make clear that this applies to bad rulers as well as good: “But if we have respect to the Word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes.” [ICR 4.20.25]. “The only thing remaining for you,” Calvin adds shortly thereafter, “will be to receive their commands, and be obedient to their words.” [ICR 4.20.26].

    David VanDrunen, “Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms” (121)

    VanDrunen goers on to point out that Calvin, when elucidating on the topic of civil disobedience and resistance qualifies his words by saying, “I speak only of private men.” VanDrunen then goes on to show how Calvin made some interesting stipulations about the less private and more extraordinary men known as lesser magistrates, typically the doctrine invoked to justify rebelling against a magistrate who says some people can’t sit at lunch counters or on certain sides of buses. Not only may “lesser magistrates curb tyrants,” but “only magistrates who have already been appointed for such a task.”

  10. Zrim, I don’t think your quotes address the point Mark was making.

    This lesser magistrate has bounds to his authority. If this lesser magistrate were to hop over to your state and impose on you a special dictate, surely you’d acknowledge that he’s acting outside of the bounds of his authority? Or in your view do you believe that anyone coming to you as an authority has full authority over your actions, especially when they have been explicitly denied that authority by everyone except himself? Do you not have a duty in our country to defend higher authorities (state and federal constitutions) against usurpers?

  11. I should note that I’m of the opinion that the Constitution is actually a fairly bad ruler, though there are far worse. If I were saying that we should break laws that the Constitution sets forth because it is a bad authority, then I think your quotes would apply.

  12. Joel, I was addressing your comment, which seemed to suggest that bad civil authorities earn disobedience. Calvin didn’t seem to think so, no matter what he may have said about lesser magistrates and I agree.

    But my view is that we are to obey God rather than men, which means when civil authorities compel us to break God’s law we obey God and keep his commandments. But we should also obey God rather than men who suggest we disobey God’s appointed authorities on the thin justification that the authority doesn’t rule very well. Our civil polity may invite us to rebel the authorities when they screw up, but God calls us to a higher standard and commands obedience even when he screws up. It’s not until he compels us to clearly disobey God that we demure, and even them it’s framed in terms of obedience (as in God), not disobedience (as in men).

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